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Take two songs and call me in the morning: How hospitals use music to heal

music therapy center
Sophie’s Place opened Wednesday at C.S. Mott, becoming one of the largest spaces in the state designated for music therapy (Photo courtesy of Michigan Medicine)
  • C.S. Mott opens new music therapy center in Ann Arbor
  • Music therapy is becoming a force in Michigan, with 900 certified therapists (and counting)
  • Recent studies show music therapy as an effective medical practice

If things had worked out differently, Elizabeth Sheeren might be headlining shows on Broadway right now. Originally from Grosse Pointe, she grew up on the stage. Her weekends were spent performing in children’s theatre, and for the rest of the week she was up until midnight singing with the Michigan Opera Theatre’s Youth Chorus. 

But a decade ago, when she was about 12 years old, Sheeren developed multiple autoimmune disorders and had to quit theater altogether. Instead of tech week, she suddenly began spending weeks at a time in the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

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Now 22 years old, Sheeren has never been able to return to the stage. But she hasn’t stopped performing.

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“Before I got really sick, I was super into theater and then all of a sudden — nothing,” Sheeren said. “To not know that you'll ever get that back is heartbreaking. I didn't even really know that music therapy could bring that back for me. But it did.”

Music therapy is the use of musical intervention in a clinical setting to alleviate stress or medical symptoms. It varies from patient to patient, but music therapy can involve singing, playing instruments, songwriting, listening to music or improvisation. Younger patients might sing along to a Disney song with a music therapist for pain management, while elderly patients can strum a favorite tune from their childhood on a guitar to refine their memory and fine-motor skills.

Since the 19th Century, it’s primarily been evidence-based science — that means it’s backed up by the results of individual case studies. However, in recent years studies have begun to emerge that support the positive effect music has on the brain. That has led to the creation of music therapy clinics at universities and at several hospitals across the state of Michigan — including a new one in Ann Arbor.

On Wednesday, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, which is a part of Michigan Medicine, opened “Sophie’s Place” — a multi-room facility dedicated to music therapy for patients. It’s named after Sophie Rose Barton, a Utah singer-songwriter who passed away at the age of 17 from a sudden heart arrhythmia. The new music therapy center is the sixth Sophie’s Place in the U.S. and the first in the Midwest.

Even among music therapy clinics, the new Ann Arbor space is unique, said Meredith Irvine, a certified music therapist and now the studio manager at Sophie’s Place. Irvine has offered one-on-one bedside music therapy services at C.S. Mott since 2015 — in fact, Sheeren was her first patient. According to a press release from the University of Michigan, the new state-of-the-art space will allow the hospital to nearly triple their music therapy operation.

That would mean that nearly 25,000 patients could benefit from music therapy at C.S. Mott in the coming year, by Irvine’s estimate, ranging from one-on-one sessions to musical live streams.

music studio
The new music therapy center will allow patients to record their own music and performances can be live-streamed to the rest of the hospital. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Medicine)

Sophie’s Place will accommodate larger group music therapy sessions and some performances will be livestreamed to the hospital’s TV network, expanding access for patients who cannot leave their beds. Irvine explained that every patient’s journey with music therapy is different. For some, just listening to music helps alleviate pain and anxiety. For others, the physical act of creating music or writing songs is instrumental to their recovery process.

“There's a lot of really rich research on the effects of songwriting on a patient's journey through their hospitalization, and what emotional support that intervention can provide,” Irvine said.

Dr. Thomas Cheever, co-chair of the National Institutes of Health’s Sound Health Initiative, is lead author of a paper suggesting that the same areas of the brain that involve language production and pain can be stimulated by music.

clinical study in 2019 also scanned the brains of a patient and their therapist during a music therapy session and found that their brain activity was in sync at several key moments throughout the session. That indicates that music therapy is able to encourage a patient’s brain to focus on music in the way their therapist intends.

In a journal published in 2021, Cheever said more clinical research is needed before a doctor might be able to prescribe patients a sheet of music in addition to a medical script.

“My hope for the future is that a physician’s tool box would have drugs, biologics, devices — and then music intervention might be one in there,” Cheever said in the journal.

One study conducted in 2015 found that music therapy practices, including songwriting, positively engaged different parts of the brain that often do not function properly when patients have clinical depression or other mental illnesses. Another study from 2012 suggested that music therapy can help stroke patients recover their voices after developing aphasia — a language disorder that can limit communication.

Miriam Sherk, a music therapist who founded her own clinic, Ann Arbor Music Therapy, just down the road from the hospital in 2019, has worked with patients struggling with communication disorders in the past. She emphasized that the experience and the end results of music therapy look different for all of her clients. Still, she said, the impact is particularly noticeable when someone who has not been able to verbalize is suddenly able to sing.

“Music therapy can look the most dramatic or profound when I’m working with nonverbal or low verbal clients,” Sherk said. “Often when I work with adults with dementia, they may have lost language and verbal communication, but then we sing songs that are meaningful to them and they sing every word.”

For Sheeren, music therapy hasn’t cured her autoimmune disorders — she’s still a patient at C.S. Mott. Still, it has given her a much-needed outlet for her passion. On more than one occasion, Sheeren said, music therapy has been the only reason she is able to get out of her hospital cot in the morning.

“No matter how I'm feeling, no matter what's going on, Meredith walks in the door and I sit right up and I'm ready to chat or play music,” Sheeren said. “There are days where she's the only one who can do that. Because there's something so special in the power of music.”

mother and son
Mother and son Katie and Price Redmon have been fans of music therapy since Price was admitted to the hospital at age three. (Bridge photo by Roni Kane)

Lake Orion resident Katie Redmon also testified to the impact music therapy has had on her jovial and animated 7-year-old son, Price. He’s been a patient at C.S. Mott since 2018, when he was just 3-years-old when he was first diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that appears in infants and young children. Almost since the day Price first walked into the hospital, he’s been receiving music therapy for pain management.

“When Price was first diagnosed, we really didn't know what to expect at the hospital,” Katie Redmon said. “And then a music therapist came in and she had her bag of instruments, a big ol’ guitar and she looked like a lot of fun. So Price was like, yes, I do want to know more about this.”

When Price is at home with his family, their house is never quiet. All four of Price’s older siblings and both of his parents play musical instruments. So in the weeks where Price has to stay at the hospital to receive treatment, his mother said, music therapy gives him some sense of normalcy. 

From shaking the maracas to banging out a beat on the drums in music therapy sessions, it seems like Price is ready to become the newest member of his family band.

“I think it really helps him to open up and relax,” Katie Redmon said. “Now it's just part of our routine. We love having a music therapist.”

Price helped cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Sophie’s Place Wednesday, and he quickly dashed inside to explore, becoming one of the first patients to engage with music therapy in the new center. But music therapy in the state of Michigan is not limited to Sophie’s Place. There are currently about 900 music therapists currently practicing in Michigan.

In neighboring Ypsilanti, Laura Pawuk, an assistant professor of music therapy-mental health and clinical coordinator at Eastern Michigan University, is shaping the future of music therapy. Since 2008, the EMU Music Therapy Center has given undergraduate music therapy students the opportunity to work under certified music therapists, like Pawuk, while offering music therapy care to the community.

“Our director at the time we were founded saw a need for music therapy for the community and was able to secure our space to serve the community,” Pawuk said.

Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, the largest hospital in the state by bed capacity with over 1,100 beds, has also offered music therapy in their children’s hospital for the past six years. Though their program is not as large as C.S. Mott’s — Beaumont typically has just one or two music therapists on staff — full-time music therapist Abby Walters said it’s “small but mighty.”

Walters said music therapy as a field has occasionally faced backlash or skepticism, driving her to prove why music and medicine should always go hand-in-hand.

“I know coming into this field, at least for me personally, there's always this fear that maybe we won't be advocated for or be seen as valuable compared to other fields,” Walters said. “But then I’ve had kids ask if they can take me home with them.”

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Walters said the creation of a hospital space specifically intended for music therapy at C.S. Mott makes her optimistic that Michiganders will continue to invest and engage with music therapy across the state.

That’s what Cole Watkins, a rising junior at Dexter High School, hopes as well. He and his younger sister Bella Watkins started music therapy together in 2018 when Cole was 11. At the time, he was receiving regular chemotherapy infusions for psoriatic arthritis while Bella was admitted to C.S. Mott for a heart attack and stroke.

When doctors were inserting IVs into Bella, Cole said she would pick up her ukelele and he would go over to a drum set and they would block out everything that was going on in the hospital and get lost in the melody.

“I’m really glad music therapy’s a thing,” Cole Watkins said. “It helped me out a lot for one of the worst years of my life.”

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